EXPECTATIONS: A run-of-the-mill slasher film that shows that Argento has run out of ideas.
REVIEW: Three days ago, it was Dario Argento’s 75th birthday, and to celebrate, here comes a Film-momatic Flashback review of the 1982 giallo film, Tenebrae (or Tenebre). His work in the giallo genre going back in the 70’s was incredibly influential (particularly to John Carpenter and his film, Halloween), shocking (his films’ plot twists still work today, particularly in Deep Red) and stylish (no horror film is more visually stylish than Suspiria). Unfortunately, after his film The Stendhal Syndrome back in 1996, his films onwards have been very middling, if not downright shocking in how inept they are. And you’re probably wondering, why am I reviewing Tenebrae instead of Deep Red or Suspiria, his two best well-known works? It is because I believe this film encapsulates everything that’s fantastic about Argento and everything that’s also detrimental about Argento.
The film’s story is about Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) an established author who is in Rome, promoting his latest mystery novel, Tenebre, until a series of murders occur that happen to be inspired by Neal’s novel. The killer then sends Neal a letter informing that his books had inspired him to go on a killing spree. Neal then becomes embroiled and drawn in on the murders and with the help of his agent (John Saxon), his assistant (Daria Nicolodi) and two detectives (Giuliano Gemma and Carola Stagnaro), they start a thrilling chase to stop the killer from striking again.
The synopsis makes the film seem like a typical mystery film but it is Argento’s film-making prowess that makes it stand out as one of his best films. First of all, there’s are some differences between this film and his earlier films. One, this film has a strong sexual element. His previous films have it with the deaths of women being overly stylized and Argento was criticized for his supposed misogynist attitude. But in Tenebrae, the notion of women is played around with with the killer and his motives. The first woman that is killed is a promiscuous shoplifter, which is a typical Argento kill. But the next woman is a liberated person who happens to be a lesbian. It’s as if Argento has gone self-referential and it adds a nice touch of meta-humour to the proceedings. There’s even a conversation between a reporter criticizing Neal’s book as being sexist, which mirrors the criticism against Argento. The sexual element also goes into the story that adds to the characters, particularly the killer. His or her motives are expressed gradually through flashbacks of a erotically violent nature that explores another trope of Argento, the trope of the killer’s point of view. One of the victims is bullied orally by a woman with a red shoe whilst in another flashback, the woman is penetrated repeatedly with a knife for revenge, pointing out the hatred of women. It makes the kills in the film stand out more distinctly, but in each half of the film, the kills are more distinct of each other. The first half, the kills are surprisingly more understated while in the second half, the kills are more gruesome. Almost like a split personality within the killer and the film itself. The film-making techniques are even different in each half. The editing in the second half is more frenetic, whilst in the first half, the editing and shots are more composed, particularly with the kills of the second and third women that includes a long voyeuristic crane shot exploring the victims’ rooms. Even the music from Goblin is differentiated between each half of the film with the former also being understated and the latter more intensified and fast-paced.
The acting in Tenebrae is at its best and its worst, although none of it is the actors’ fault. Anthony Franciosa is a great lead as Peter Neal, mainly because he’s genuine, likable, smart and he plays the facades of his character quite well, especially in the second half.His character is one of the best protagonists in an Argento film alongside Jessica Harper and David Hemmings. John Saxon is amusing as the slightly slimy agent and he has a fun chemistry with Franciosa. As for the rest of the actors, their performances are heavily flawed with atrocious dubbing. Although the dubbing of Daria Nicolodi is fine, particularly at the end of the film, the dubbing of Giuliano Gemma is laughable to the point that it adds to the character, adding to the chemistry between him and Franciosa, whereas the dubbing of Christian Borromeo is just plain laughable.
The storytelling is also flawed, yet well-done. The flashbacks give the film a surreal feel that makes the film dream-like. Even the settings like the architecture and the sculptures in the film seem more abstract than realistic, adding to the dream-like feel. Another Argento trope that is present in the film is the protagonists’ memory lapses. Like in Deep Red, there would be a key moment that a protagonist would have difficulty in remembering yet in retrospect, it would pay off with a very integral plot point or character reveal. In Tenebrae, it is the moment that places the line between the two halves of the film stated earlier, and it pays off wonderfully by the film’s end, making sense of the flashbacks. This element of storytelling is even referenced in the movie between Franciosa’s character and Gemma’s character, as they discuss the killer’s motives through comparisons of Agatha Christie and Ed McBain (I loved the film High and Low by Akira Kurosawa, which is based on a novel by Ed McBain).
As for the flaws in the storytelling, there are some major plot holes like how a victim in a serendipitous fashion literally stumble in the killer’s hideout, but apart from that flaw and all the other flaws stated, Tenebrae is, in my opinion, his most self-referential giallo.
The leads give good performances
The kills are intense and the tension is impressive
Self-referential humour gives it a humourous edge
The plentiful twists are effective
Crappy English dubbing
Acting is very inconsistent
Some plot holes
NOTE: Thanks to Arrow Video for releasing it on DVD/BluRay!
Cast: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliana Gemma, Mirella D’Angelo, John Steiner, Veronica Lario, Christian Borromeo, Lara Wendel, Ania Pieroni, Mirella Banti, Carola Stagnaro, Eva Robin’s
Director: Dario Argento
Screenwriter: Dario Argento